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Celebrations of Grace: The Sacraments of the Catholic Church
By Jack Hartjes
12. The Blessed Sacrament, an Ecumenical View
A foster daughter, formerly Lutheran, was considering becoming Pagan. I told here that, since Catholicism was much closer to Paganism in spirit than Lutheranism, she should consider stopping at a Catholic church on her spiritual journey. The suggestion was only half facetious. Paganism, according to a recent book, is all about manifestations of the divine. We Catholics find a lot of ways to appreciate manifestations of God and heavenly things. Catholic theologian David Tracy says that is one of the strengths of Catholicism, but it can lead astray if it is not joined to another movement from God to us—proclamation, where Lutherans are especially strong. Manifestation emphasizes sight and static presence. Proclamation emphasizes hearing and active response. Of all the manifestation possibilities in Catholicism, ranging from miracles and appearances of Mary to relics, statues, Christmas trees, and prayer beads, the centerpiece is surely the Eucharist. And there’s nothing that says manifestation quite so unequivocally as the various devotions to the “Blessed Sacrament.”
The devotion called “Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament” was a popular one in my youth, and, after a period of neglect, it has been making a strong comeback. My experience of it in pre-Vatican II days included incense, double genuflection (on two knees instead of only one), songs in Latin, and a prayer called “The Divine Praises.” The main feature was a somewhat spectacular display of a consecrated host inside a cross-shaped “monstrance” (from the Latin word for showing). In contrast to the renewed liturgy of the Mass, the role of the people was largely passive, mostly kneeling. The priest, too, except for the incensing, was separated from the main action, which was the blessing of the people with the Blessed Sacrament. With great solemnity the priest took the monstrance and made a sign of the cross with it in front of the people. But, as if to stress that it’s only Jesus, not the priest doing the action, the server would give the priest an extra vestment to wear around his shoulders, with the ends of which he would wrap the monstrance so that his hands never touched the thing.
This whole ceremony is almost completely unchanged from my boyhood days,
in spite of the remarkable changes in the liturgy of the Mass and all the other
sacraments. It’s pure manifestation and zero proclamation.
In pre-Vatican II days I was taught that Protestants do not believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. This was misleading. Many Protestants do believe Jesus is really present, but there are some differences, particularly regarding what we call the Blessed Sacrament. Protestants do not believe Jesus remains present after the Eucharistic celebration is over. Protestants do not reserve consecrated Eucharistic bread for later adoration.
There is also an issue within Catholic theology and practice. Liturgists for some time have said that the signs of the sacraments, the bearers of the presence, are not things but actions—pouring water, anointing with oil, sharing a meal, etc. But we also say Jesus’ presence remains with the Eucharistic elements after the action is finished. This belief became a practical as well as a theological problem in the Middle Ages when devotion to Jesus in the Eucharist outside of Mass began to be taken to extremes. People would spend long hours in church gazing at the Eucharist exposed on the altar, to the neglect of other obligations, like work. The practical effect of Jesus’ presence in any sacrament should not be to entice people away from the world but to prompt further engagement with the world. Theologically, Jesus’ presence is not a static being-there but a dynamic activity. Jesus is not here for us to see and marvel at but to use.
Belief in Jesus’ continuing presence as bread or wine goes back to the early centuries of the Church. It arose as the answer to those who wondered what it meant when some of those present at a “Breaking of the Bread” would take Communion to sick members of the community who could not come to the celebration. It’s still really the Eucharist, the answer goes, even when taken away from the liturgical celebration and consumed much later. It’s still the real presence of Jesus. But notice how in this situation it is a presence to be used. It is still part of a meal. Later some Eucharistic bread began to be reserved in a special place for use in case of emergency—to take to someone who was dying, for example. This was known as Viaticum (a composite Latin word for “on the way with you (Jesus).” Then the practice of going to church just to see and worship began. The dynamic nature of the presence was in danger of being lost behind the appearance of a sacred host that was just “there.” Finally the Church had to step in and make some rules limiting the times and ways that the Eucharist could be exposed. Now, except for special celebrations, the hosts are kept hidden in the tabernacle. But the practice of worshiping Jesus in the tabernacle continues, and there are those special celebrations, called Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.
Catholics and Protestants have differing interpretations of Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist. For Protestants it’s a matter of Jesus being present in the bread. The bread is a place to which Jesus really comes, but Jesus leaves that place when the liturgy is over. The bread and wine are not fundamentally changed. Catholics believe Jesus is the bread more or less the same way that a tall person is tall. When I see your physical features and your actions, I am seeing you, not something that contains you or stands in for you. The Eucharist is like that. What is there is only Jesus. Jesus “wears” the bread, not as an article of clothing or a container but as you wear the color of your skin or the cast of your personality. Jesus is revealed, not hidden, in the Eucharistic meal.
What we call “transubstantiation” is a change in which what before was bread now is Jesus. Jesus is present as bread, not in the bread.
Just as you might say, “I am tall” or “I am short,” we say, “Jesus is our bread.” Jesus is just as truly present in the form of wine, but usually we do not speak of Communion wine in the same way. (Liturgists often say, “bread and cup” when referring to the two Eucharistic elements.) Jesus never called himself wine, but he did say, “I myself am the bread of life.” (John 6:35)
That saying may explain why Catholics reserve the Eucharist in the form of bread and not in the form of wine; but there are other reasons. Jesus in the Eucharist is food and nourishment for people. If Communion were kept in the form of wine, that presence of Jesus would regularly become unusable because wine is unstable: It goes bad. Fairly soon there would no longer be a Eucharistic sign, or a presence of Jesus, at all. Besides that, I have a sense that the sign of a cup of wine is too dramatic for the continuing presence of Jesus in our churches. It reminds me of some of the legends of King Arthur. Arthur’s best knights went off in search of the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper, still containing—as the story goes—some of the precious blood. This quest of the “Holy Grail,” while it makes great literature, is not a Christian concern. The Eucharist is not the object of a quest. The reverse is true: We are God’s quest. The Eucharist is not meant to take us away from our engagement with life in this world as the literary Holy Grail did to its pursuers.
Some Communion bread is reserved in the tabernacle—a word that originally meant tent and brings to mind the tent in which the Hebrews kept the Ark of the Covenant. That kind of housing is meant for a temporary stay, and liturgists today like to point out that the purpose of this reservation of Eucharistic bread is the same as it was in the very early Church—to be ready to go when and where it is needed by someone who is sick or in danger of death.
I was taught that “tabernacle” means tent in my traditional Catholic upbringing, but it was hard to see in the tabernacle I knew then anything less than a house or even a shrine. Entering church was like going to visit God at home. Nothing about the beautiful church and the beautiful setting in which we enshrined the Eucharist suggested a place for temporary occupancy that is readily left behind when the need arises. The public worship service that grew up around this reserved presence seemed like a visit to Jesus at home.
We call that service “Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament,” “Benediction” for short. Huge changes have taken place in both our celebration and our understanding of the Mass, but Benediction has changed hardly at all. The same prayers are said and songs sung as in my childhood, though in English translation now. The assembly plays the same mostly passive role. Even the priest hardly seems to be taking an active part. The main action is the blessing with the Blessed Sacrament, visible through a window in its cross-shaped container (called a “Monstrance” because it shows, or demonstrates, God’s presence). Of course, the priest has to hold the Monstrance and make the Sign of the Cross with it over the people, but he separates himself physically from that action. He places a veil between his own hands and the sacred container as if to say, “It’s Jesus, not I, who blesses.” Of course, all blessing and all graces come from Jesus, but in this whole ceremony, what is happening to the idea of “Liturgy,” the work of the people of God?
The presence of Jesus in our churches, because it’s a real presence, can be a really meaningful sign, a sign of God’s presence and work everywhere and all the time. It ought to start becoming obvious that the church is not God’s natural home but a temporary stopping place in the course of all of God’s movements among us. It’s a place where we can visit with God and take a break from secular concerns, but we’ll also be reminded—because God’s presence there is made more obvious than usual—that God is all around us. New rules for church architecture are a start in this direction. The Tabernacle is given a place of honor, but not the central place in church, definitely not on top of the altar as before Vatican II. It does not overwhelm us either by its location or the amount of space it takes up.
To this change there needs to be added a change in the ceremonies we employ to honor the Blessed Sacrament. Lately there has been a renewal of emphasis on the beautiful Catholic tradition of Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, but I haven’t seen a renewal in how it is done or how it is understood. It is God that we worship, really present on our altar and really connected with the work of God’s people and with the many other ways that God is present; but those connections could become far more obvious for the people there. Change is already authorized by new rubrics for the ceremony.
A Liturgy of the Word could be added to the ceremony. Making connections between God’s presence on the altar and in our everyday world is well within the power of a reading from scripture—where God is seen working not in superheroes but in ordinary, imperfect people, just like us, in circumstances that are very much like ours. A homily would further enliven our belief in God’s constant presence and activity and encourage us to let God work in our lives. Benediction should include a celebration of God’s Word, which has meant much to the renewal of Catholic life in general. One reading would be enough. Some parishes practice the devotion of Benediction daily, and for them going through the entire Bible, or most of it, over a year or a few years would be feasible.
An entrance procession would help emphasize the people’s participation in God’s work. And why not add a procession with the Blessed Sacrament through the assembly once in a while? The ceremony does not have to be quite so passive as it has been.
Catholics have many holy things and practices besides their seven sacramental celebrations. The Blessed Sacrament, the Real Presence of Christ in our Tabernacles and on our altars during Exposition and Benediction, is the first on this long list. In its primordial place it gives meaning to all of them. In one single chorus they are all telling us, if we let them speak: “Open your eyes and see, but don’t look at us only. Look all around you. We can tell you exactly where God lives and works—everywhere.”
How do you rate the importance of time off from the concerns of this world in the presence of Jesus? Can the Blessed Sacrament and other holy objects and actions be both respite from the world and signs of the grace that is always at work in the world?